There was a time when nobody wanted to talk about mental illness. Even though 70 million working days are lost to mental health conditions every year in the UK, until recently it remained a taboo subject, with around 60 per cent of employees saying they had never spoken about it at work.
Times have, thankfully, changed and people who are struggling are not expected to simply pull themselves together and carry on. Companies have worked hard to change their culture to support mental wellbeing while singers, celebrities and even Prince Harry have spoken out about their struggles with anxiety and depression, ensuring that mental wellness rightly remains on the news agenda.
However, while this is all extremely welcome, on the other hand, another issue remains that some people just do not seem to want to talk about – the menopause.
Half the world’s population will go through the menopause. Yet research has found that almost a third of working women aged between 50 and 64 were reluctantly taking time off to alleviate menopausal symptoms – or the equivalent of 14 million days.
More than half felt they had to work extra to make up for the time they had lost; so more than two million women were working in their own time as a result of something out of their control.
Some had even left or considered leaving their jobs as dealing with symptoms in the workplace was difficult. Others may consider working part-time, despite the concern about the impact on their career and their pay packet. Some even think about leaving employment permanently because menopause is not often treated with the same understanding as other health issues.
A force to be reckoned with
With around 3.5 million women aged between 15 and 65 years currently in employment in the UK, women now represent nearly a half of the UK labour force. This, surely, makes the menopause mainstream and as important as any other occupational health issue.
Yet when companies implement policies for their female employees, many only consider those relating to maternity and pregnancy. Menopause is a major natural stage in a woman’s life, yet it is often overlooked. A CIPD study of 1,400 women by the CIPD found that menopause workplace guidelines are often unaccounted for within businesses.
It’s not uncommon for women to find they are unprepared for the onset of the menopause so are even less equipped to manage its symptoms at work, with the majority feeling they need further support and advice.
Coping with menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, mood swings and poor concentration at work can be tough and some women are, understandably, embarrassed or even afraid to talk to their employer about it – particularly if their line manager is young or male.
Sometimes the workplace itself can be an issue, having not been designed with menopausal women in mind.
The UK workplace trade union Unison considers the impact of menopausal symptoms on female workers is both an occupational health issue and an equality issue. It launched a dedicated guide, The Menopause is a Workplace Issue, aimed at supporting employers looking to create a working environment where female staff feel supported.
The guide highlights how symptoms – from migraines to panic attacks – are an occupational health issue and can have a significant effect on employees. However, these are often trivialised or treated as embarrassing by bosses and colleague.
Statistics show that around one in every three women has either experienced or is currently going through the menopause. Around eight in every 10 will experience noticeable symptoms and of these, almost half (45 per cent) finds their symptoms hard to deal with.
While some women may cope well with the physical and emotional changes, for others they may cause particular difficulties both in work and out of work.
In its guidance, the union notes that the menopause is not confined to women exclusively in their late forties or early fifties. It can affect younger women through a premature or a medical menopause as a result of surgery, while transgender people can also experience symptoms.
What companies can do
Education is key to a better understanding and developing a menopause policy or guidance document will inform managers and employees.
Make it an open conversation, not a taboo. Even I have struggled to share my experience of my surgical menopause as I was fearful of judgement and assumptions being made about my ability. We must provide a culture where women feel comfortable about discussing their symptoms and what impact that has on their working lives – you could run a workshop on dealing with the symptoms at work and at home, or set up a forum where women can talk and share experiences.
There are various actions that businesses can take, both on a policy and a practical level. These include:
- Promoting awareness of the typical symptoms and the simple changes that can support women through the transition to all employees. It’s important to use gender-neutral language where possible, to help get male employees on board.
- Improve support for line managers and engage senior managers in the conversation.
- Provide information on how women experiencing the menopause can get the support they need.
- Review existing policies on time off and sickness.
- Offer flexible working to those who are experiencing symptoms.
- Identify adjustments in the workplace, such as moving someone’s work station away from a source of heat, providing fans and access to cool drinking water and adapting uniforms.
- Improve access to support, whether formal or informal.
What individuals can do
The old adage that it’s good to talk certainly applies to the menopause, whether it’s discussing treatment options with your GP or talking to a manager or someone in HR you feel comfortable with. Or you could share your experiences with supportive work colleagues – you will find you aren’t alone!
Other things to try include:
- Use technology if it can help you. Use your phone to set up reminders or to take notes.
- Look into mindfulness techniques you can use at work and home.
- Consider lifestyle changes – could you lose weight, eat more healthily or stop smoking?
- Having access to natural light.
- Stay cool at night – wearing loose clothes in a cool, well-ventilated room will help with hot flushes and night sweats.
- Ensure you get adequate rest and relaxation to reduce stress levels and improve your mood.
Employers must find ways to support their female employees during this time. To reduce the stigma, managers need to be educated about the symptoms and possible effects that the menopause can have.
Greater awareness of the menopause as a real occupational health issue. If you are unsure whether your company needs to update its policies or employee handbook, speak to an HR consultant.